Ann Juneau grew up in Arabi, New Orleans, just eight blocks from the Mississippi River. She arrived at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries in 1985 to work as the Department Head for the Natural and Physical Sciences, retiring in 2014.
Ann continues to view New Orleans as home and still maintains her childhood home there. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Ann watched the storm on television and waited for word from family and friends as to their safety and whereabouts.
As soon as homeowners were allowed back in, she drove to New Orleans to find her house intact but with severe flood damage. Her neighbor's house had floated off its foundation and missed crashing into her home by half an inch. Seeing the devastation throughout her parish, Ann finds it difficult to comprehend how her house was spared.
For the past eight years Ann has sought Smithsonian expertise on the conservation of paper and photographs damaged by water. While she continues to restore her house and its belongings she also began to help others restoring their local library collections and family heirlooms.
"Just eight blocks from the Mississippi River is where I grew up and lived in a house with my mother and father. It was just the three of us. We were very close. Being an only child, my parents gave me just about anything I wanted and sometimes didn't necessarily wish to have. My parents, being middle aged at my birth in 1950, prided themselves in affording me the things they never had growing up. They had spent their early years of marriage in poverty during the Great Depression.
August 29, 2005, the National Hurricane Center's predictions and incessant warnings, proved unerring. Katrina made landfall. We watched as families along the Mississippi Coast were getting washed into the Gulf of Mexico. St Bernard Parish and the adjoining Plaquemines Parish were ground zero in Louisiana. Every structure in these parishes was underwater. At first it seemed that New Orleans was spared until noon that day when the waters began to rise. Several levees breached and a barge broke its moorings and rammed into the protective containment wall in the Lower Ninth Ward, just about a mile from my home. As I kept vigil from my Maryland home, I called my cousins the previous day to begin the tracking of where they were going to evacuate and what documents they were taking with them in case they had little to go back to after the storm. Days passed without any communication. No lifelines were present as the severity of the effects unfolded in front of the eyes of the world as we were riveted to our TVs'.
In early October when we were told that residents could return to only visit their properties and then leave within three days, I gathered while in D.C., as much material about what to do with paper artifacts and objects that were worth recovering. Bringing some form of advice and support to others was my mental lifeline.
Arriving in the midst of early morningâ€“pitch darkness in New Orleans East, there were no street markers; houses in unrecognizable shreds strewn across streets; total destruction and a few police cars patrolling. A New York state policeman was able to check his computer and helped us with direction. Then the driver of the van and I found our way to my cousinâ€™s home in a neighboring parish (county) who miraculously had missed the flooding in her area by a mile. Her home became my personal base camp.
The following day we headed to my Arabi properties. There they stood intact: my home, the little house in back, my father's barber shop. The water marks clearly seen on the walls; with the famous circle drawn by the first responders on each buildingâ€™s door in neighborhoods with four quadrants to signify their initials; dates when the building was checked, number of dead found; number of animals found dead or alive.
The real work began over the next weeks and months with removal of everything in the house and my other properties. The reconstitution of the buildings continues to this day. The ten o'clock evening curfews were enforced by the National Guard who patrolled each hour, but I refused to leave MY HOME until I was ready. The limited time I had during the first visit was precious time and no Guardsmen were going to expel me off of my property. Total quiet blanketed the city. It was the totality of purgatorial grayness. No sounds of birds, no dogs barking; ashen colored trees and grass; pitch darkness and squalid heat. No infrastructure remained anywhere in parts of New Orleans and certainly none remained in St. Bernard. The only lights were a couple of megawatt 40 foot lights supplied by the National Guard placed at strategic check points.
The first two trips I made could not just be about my own properties. Being at the Smithsonian, I was compelled to do more to bring whatever I could to what little I could to help the few who were around with giving hope about their treasured photographs encased in mud or family heirloom that most possibly could be saved. The Smithsonian was part of a consortium of at least 40 federal agencies talking daily with one another. Reaching out to the Louisiana State Librarian's office, I made myself available in any way needed. Service was not only an obligation but a needed requirement to fill this new personal emptiness.
Almost nine years have elapsed and Katrina is a household name across the country. Locally, every conversation begins with reference to before Katrina or after Katrina. Government and policies have been remade nationally since the disaster. Many improvements achieved. A Diaspora of New Orleanians is now located in states they never heard of prior to the storm. Those who returned did so and with an indestructible mindset, rebuilt their homes owned by familial generations. I began immediately upon returning that October 2005, to start the very circuitous trek to stabilize, clean and reconstruct my inheritance. There is still much to do.
Hurricane Katrina produced a man-made disaster of desperate proportions in New Orleans. In Mississippi and Florida, it proved to be an actual natural disaster. For the sake of protecting our future and families, communities must be able to see the full picture of living in acknowledged areas prone to nature's unbridled forces. Sea level rise, climate change, and land subsidence in this area are prominent factors that have existed before these phrases became part of the global vocabulary.
Residents will someday have to relinquish some of their free will and give it to their policy makers at all levels of government to find the means, especially smartly conceived amounts of funding, for relocating neighborhoods out of harm's way. As difficult as it is to admit and thought I never would, the planning and, more importantly, the execution, of well-informed strategic planning is paramount to our future and long, lasting survival."
-- Ann Juneau, May 2014
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